May ran through the city streets, not caring where she was going or who saw her. All she wanted was to put as much distance between herself and the mall as possible. It wasn’t the first time she’d left the tribe; since the Virus it had been the way of the world that if you didn’t look after number one then you wouldn’t last long, so it paid to keep a certain level of detachment from the others. Joining the Chosen. Being kicked out of the Mallrats after spying on them for Mega. She knew she would never win any prizes for being a good person, but she’d been forced to live by the rule that if something helps you survive, it’s always the right thing – you do what it takes. Only this time it was different. What she needed to survive was back at the mall, but she couldn’t have it. Salene didn’t want her, at least not in the way that she wanted Salene. She had opened up to her in a way that she never had for anyone else, and in return she had been rejected. Humiliated and heartbroken, she now found herself in the only other place she felt at home, out on the streets.
Pausing to wipe the moisture from her cheeks, she took a look at her surroundings. Empty buildings rose up around her, just as you’d find in most areas of the city. There were a few signs of life if you looked hard enough – a discarded scarf here, a Techno propaganda poster there – but for the most part the area was deserted. She had used to like it that way; there was less danger, and it was easier to see yourself as top dog when there was nobody else around. The sole survivor. But being a Mallrat had made her soft. All she felt now was cold and lonely. What she needed was a bar or a casino, preferably where nobody knew her, where she could drown her sorrows alone but in company. It took a little more wandering before she found what she was looking for. Almost hidden away down a side street, a small round sign sticking out from one of the buildings proclaimed Angel’s Paradise Café. The sign showed a figure in a white robe wearing a Paradise headset. She’d never heard of the place before. Given how fresh the paint on the sign was, it was probably new. Small chance of finding somebody she knew in there. It was perfect. There were no bouncers outside, so she opened the door and walked in.
Once inside, she knew she wouldn’t be disturbed by anybody – there was nobody there. The only other person in the room was a boy she took to be the owner, tinkering with a Paradise headset at one of the tables.
‘Oh, hello,’ the boy said, looking up in surprise. He put the headset down and rose to greet her. ‘I’m Angel,’ he said, offering a hand. She shook it.
‘May,’ she replied, casting her eyes around the room and taking in the technology, Angel’s stiff posture and the formal way in which he had greeted her. ‘Ex-Techno?’ she guessed.
He nodded, somewhat self-consciously. ‘Didn’t really work out,’ he explained. ‘I felt like a career change.’
‘I’m not sure that this is working out either,’ she pointed out, gesturing at the empty tables.
Angel shrugged. ‘I’m still just getting set up really. But hey, as my very first customer can I interest you in a taste of Paradise? On the house.’
May pulled a face. The bar would have been more her thing but that didn’t look like it was stocked up yet. ‘I’m not really into all that Paradise stuff.’
‘Hey, your dreams are as real as you make them,’ Angel replied seriously.
May snorted and rolled her eyes but Angel was still looking at her expectantly, and the only alternative was to go back outside into the cold. ‘Oh alright then,’ she sighed.
‘Excellent!’ Angel smiled, picking up a headset. ‘Well, I guess I’d better explain how it works first.’
‘I know how it all works,’ she said, giving a dismissive wave. ‘Just stick that headset on before I change my mind.’
Angel chuckled. ‘It’s refreshing to be around people who understand technology,’ he said. ‘I haven’t really had that since I left the Technos. What tribe are you with?’
‘Good question,’ May answered.
‘Ah.’ Angel turned the headset around in his hands awkwardly for a moment before regaining his composure. ‘Well. One new feature to point out,’ he said, indicating a dial on the outside of the device. ‘With this you have full control over how close to reality your experience is.’ He handed the headset to her and she took it, looking at the dial.
‘How close to reality?’ She knew what she wanted most in the world and, after Salene’s rejection earlier, knew just how unlikely that was. ‘Not very,’ she snorted, turning the dial as far as it would go in the other direction. She put the headset on.
‘Ok, here goes,’ Angel said as he turned on the machine. ‘Enjoy!’
Almost immediately the room was filled with people. Music filled the air and there was a relaxed, happy atmosphere. She looked to the bar, where Angel stood wiping a glass with a cloth. He raised it to her in greeting and gestured to the door. She smiled, knowing where she had to go. Outside a thick layer of snow had fallen, unmarked by footprints despite the crowd inside the café. She remembered how cold it had been when she entered, but here in the simulation she didn’t feel it. Everything flickered for a moment as she became aware of reality, but she ignored it, wanting to get to the mall. She turned a corner and there it was, suddenly appearing before her. Outside, Sammy and Gel were busy building snowmen by the entrance. They must have made at least a dozen already. Laughing at the two younger Mallrats having fun, she made her way inside.
When she made it through the grille she stared in wonder – the mall was decked out with Christmas decorations from floor to ceiling. Tinsel was wrapped all the way along the railings of the stairs and the upper balcony, and a huge tree with twinkling lights stood in the central court, topped with a Mallrat amulet.
‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ a voice said.
‘We found it all in the attic,’ said another.
May gave a start when she realised who it was. ‘Patsy? Cloe? What are you two doing here?’
‘We came back!’ Patsy exclaimed, as if that explained everything.
‘And we’re not the only ones either. Come on!’ Cloe took May’s hand and led her further into the mall. Over by the fountain she saw Jack and Ellie hugging Alice, and Amber was walking down the stairs holding hands with Bray.
‘With the snow outside and all the Mallrats back, we just had to celebrate,’ Amber explained. ‘It’s a Christmas miracle!’
‘Ho ho ho!’ Lex called from the top of the stairs, dressed as Father Christmas and with one arm around Tai San. May’s eyes nearly popped out of her head. Everything flickered again.
She felt butterflies in her stomach and turned to see Salene entering the mall.
‘It’s so good to see you!’ Salene smiled, running up to her and planting a kiss on her lips. May jerked back in shock, looking at the rest of the Mallrats, but they all just smiled or waved, happy for the two of them, even Lex.
‘What’s wrong?’ Salene asked as May held her at arm’s length.
May shook her head, confused. ‘You. Us. All this.’
‘Isn’t this what you wanted?’ Salene asked. ‘A home? A family? Me?’ She tried to embrace her once again but May pushed her away.
‘It’s too much,’ she cried, fleeing the mall for the second time that day. Outside she was confronted by dozens of Sammy and Gel’s jolly-looking snowmen, as far as the eye could see.
‘It’s all too much!’ she yelled, grabbing a nearby shovel and swinging it at the nearest snowman, beheading it. Rather than giving her what she wanted, the simulation seemed to be teasing her with everything she couldn’t have. As reality closed in, the Paradise vision flickered and died. Everything went black. She reached up to remove the headset but met with resistance. It was Angel.
‘What are you doing?’ she asked, panicking.
‘Trust me,’ he said. ‘Let’s just try something a little more real.’ As she struggled, she heard the reality dial click as it turned back the other way, then everything seemed to lurch to one side, like she was falling.
Her fingers were cold. She was on her hands and knees in the snow. Slowly she stood, drying her hands on her leggings above the wet patches where she had been kneeling, and rubbing her fingers to bring back the warmth.
‘You alright May?’ Sammy asked hesitantly. He and Gel were in front of the mall, building a snowman that was looking a little lopsided.
‘I’m fine,’ she replied, though she wasn’t really sure.
‘You should go inside and warm up,’ Gel added. ‘Trudy’s made hot chocolate.’
‘Thanks,’ she said. That did sound good. She entered the mall, wondering what she would find inside.
In the courtyard, Jack was slinging lights around the phoenix statue, and Ellie was busy decorating the place with branches of holly from the bush outside the mall.
‘May! Come in and get warm,’ Amber called as she came down the stairs. ‘What do you think? With the change in the weather we thought we’d celebrate old school style.’
‘Ho ho freaking ho,’ Lex muttered as he followed behind her wearing a Santa hat.
‘Trudy’s promised to try and mull some wine if he keeps it on all night,’ Amber explained. May laughed in spite of herself.
She felt butterflies in her stomach and turned to see Salene entering the mall.
Everything went black as she took the headset off.
‘Wait, what’s wrong?’ Angel asked, sounding alarmed. ‘Was it really that bad?’ He looked at her as though he could see his whole business failing before his eyes. He couldn’t even satisfy one customer.
‘No, it was better,’ she said. ‘I just didn’t want to spoil the moment. Dreams are all well and good but sometimes you have to face reality. It’s less disappointing that way.’
‘Hey, what did I tell you? Dreams are…’
‘As real as you make them, yeah yeah…’ she finished. ‘Seriously though, this has helped.’ She tapped the headset and Angel smiled, feeling better.
‘Good luck with it all, eh?’ she said, bidding Angel farewell.
‘Same to you,’ he waved as she left the café.
It was still bitterly cold as she made her way back to the mall. In fact halfway there it did indeed start to snow. By the time she reached the grille it had begun to settle lightly on the ground.
Outside the mall, Gel was standing open-mouthed, looking at the sky. It had been a long time since it had last snowed in the city. She probably couldn’t remember seeing it.
Just as she was about to say something to the younger Mallrat, a tiny snowball flew out from behind a bush and hit Gel on the back of the neck. She shrieked and turned around. A mop of flame-coloured hair ducked behind the bush.
‘Sammy, you rat!’ Gel screamed. ‘You wait ‘til I get my hands on you!’
Sammy fled round the side of the building with Gel in pursuit. May smiled, shaking her head, and walked inside.
‘May, there you are!’ Ellie exclaimed as she entered. She came to greet her, pulling Jack along with her. ‘Have you seen the weather?’
‘Yeah,’ she replied. And then, because she couldn’t resist. ‘Just like Christmas.’
‘Now that’s not actually a bad idea,’ Amber chimed in as she came down the stairs. Lex and Trudy followed her.
‘Christmas? Humbug!’ Lex muttered.
‘Oh come on Lex, why not after the year we’ve had?’ Trudy chided.
‘Throw in some mulled wine and maybe I’ll think about it.’
Trudy’s eyes sparkled with determination. ‘Challenge accepted!’ she replied. Lex blinked, unsure as to what he had just gotten himself into.
‘You know, I’m sure there must be an old box of decorations somewhere,’ Jack said. ‘Come on Ellie, let’s go have a look.’
‘Great idea May,’ Amber said, squeezing her shoulder. ‘This is just what we need to bring the tribe together.’
‘It’s probably something Tai San would have done,’ Lex agreed reluctantly.
She felt butterflies in her stomach and turned to see Salene entering the mall. She wished she was still wearing the headset so she could take it off. But this was real.
‘I was worried about you!’ Salene continued, hurrying over to give her a hug. ‘You ran off and were gone so long, and it was so cold outside…are you alright?’
‘I’m fine Salene,’ she said, smiling.
‘Really?’ Salene asked again, more quietly. This time she wasn’t talking about the weather.
‘Really,’ she replied, looking her in the eye. Salene blushed, but was saved from having to say anything further by the return of Jack and Ellie.
‘There was a box of decorations!’ Ellie announced, bringing it over and blowing the dust off. Inside were some faded paper chains, tinsel, and a few dented baubles.
‘And we don’t have a tree, but I did find this magnificent branch,’ Jack added, holding up what could be better described as a large twig. It was enough though. The decorations, such as they were, and the twig.
‘It’s enough,’ May murmured, stealing a glance at Salene while she was joking with Jack about the twig. Maybe one day Salene would return her feelings. Maybe she wouldn’t. Even reality space couldn’t predict the future. But she had a home, and she had a family, and – for now at least – that was enough.
She rummaged around in the box of decorations and found a little cardboard angel at the bottom. She straightened out the wings a bit and stuck it on top of the Christmas twig.
‘Thanks,’ she said, smiling contentedly.